The NBBL Files: Chuck Schumer “Doesn’t Like the Bike Lane”

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the third installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 5, 2011.

This is the third installment in a series of posts examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first post and the second post.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a frequent cyclist, walks his bike by the Prospect Park West bike lane, which he told bike lane opponents he does not like. Image: ##http://brooklynspoke.com/2011/10/03/chuck-schumer-and-the-prospect-park-west-bike-lane-2/##Brooklyn Spoke.##

Throughout the Prospect Park West bike lane saga, intense speculation has surrounded New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer. Both his wife, Iris Weinshall, and his daughter, Jessica Schumer, played leading roles in the fight against the redesign, but Schumer’s office remained studiously silent throughout. “I am not commenting,” Schumer repeatedly told the New York Times when asked about the bike lane this March; in later press conferences, his staff barred reporters from asking about it.

Despite his public attempt to remain neutral, Schumer told opponents of the bike lane that he personally opposed it, according to correspondence obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request.

Members of the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” also attempted to use the senator’s political power and network of contacts to their advantage. They exploited his connections to get access to top political consultants and hoped to use his clout to pressure local elected officials. David Seifman at the Post has reported that Schumer asked City Council members what they would do about the bike lane. Schumer may also have discussed the project with Mayor Bloomberg himself, according to a message from one leading bike lane opponent.

Schumer apparently revealed his opposition to the bike lane to NBBL leader Louise Hainline, who lives in the penthouse of the same Prospect Park West apartment building the senator calls home. “Schumer can’t help much with this issue, but I have seen him and he doesn’t like the lane,” wrote Hainline to two bike lane opponents on June 29, 2010. Though Hainline said Schumer “can’t help much,” NBBL repeatedly attempted to use his connections and clout to aid their efforts.

Bike lane opponents sought to wield the senator’s political influence to pressure local elected officials. Specifically, Hainline believed that she could leverage her Schumer connection to win the backing of City Council Member Steve Levin.

In an e-mail to a personal friend on December 24, 2010, Hainline reported on her recent meetings with members of the City Council. She came away believing Council Member Brad Lander wouldn’t turn against the lane, but that Levin might. Wrote Hainline: “Stephen Levin is a protégée of Vito Lopez, who if you are reading the papers is in some hot water, so Levin’s looking for some god father, and may want Vacca or Schumer to protect him, maybe both.”

It’s not clear whether Hainline’s plan for Levin was based on her recent conversation with him or was simply wishful thinking. Levin has not taken a public position on the bike lane, even when asked about it directly.

No written evidence of Schumer’s direct lobbying on the bike lane has surfaced, but one email is quite suggestive. On December 3, 2010, bike lane opponent and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel wrote to Weinshall: “Also heard abt a purported conversation betwn the mayor and our sr. senator you might find of interest.” In all the documents obtained by Streetsblog, the extent of Steisel and Weinshall’s communications was limited to the Prospect Park West bike lane, suggesting that the conversation “of interest” between Schumer and Bloomberg was likely about the same topic.

Weinshall, Hainline, and Jessica Schumer also tried to enlist a veteran of Chuck Schumer’s press shop. On July 12, 2010, Jessica Schumer reported on the latest ally her family had recruited in their fight against the bike lane: one of the state’s top media consultants. “My mom talked with Risa Heller on Saturday night – she used to do my dad’s press and then went on to work for the governor and now does PR work,” she wrote. “She said she would be willing to help us out a little – so I can get in touch with her if you would like.” Hainline said that she’d be interested, and Schumer agreed to contact Heller.

A few days later, Hainline proposed smearing Transportation Alternatives and Streetsblog for receiving funding from Mark Gorton, who at the time was enmeshed in a lawsuit with the record industry over his Limewire file-sharing software. “I’ll take a look at it this weekend,” Jessica Schumer told Hainline, copying Weinshall, “and will see what risa thinks of that angle as well.”

Nine days after Jessica Schumer first reached out to Heller, Hainline told two NBBL members: “We also have some advice from a media person who cannot be public but was recommending a press conference when we file the suit.”

Heller was the only media professional mentioned in the NBBL communications obtained by Streetsblog during this period, but she specifically denied that this email referred to her. “Iris reached out to me and as much as I love her I declined to get involved,” Heller told Streetsblog.

Schumer’s current staff appear to be keeping a close eye on reports that link him to the bike lane opposition. Of note is an email from Weinshall to two of Schumer’s top staffers, Martin Brennan and Mike Lynch. Brennan is Schumer’s New York state director, Lynch his chief of staff. The content of the email was of little consequence — a friend sent a clip from a Streetsblog article about the Schumer family to Weinshall, who forwarded it on to Brennan, Lynch and Jessica Schumer — but it was sent to their Senate email addresses, suggesting official business.

There remains much that we don’t know about Schumer’s involvement in the fight against the bike lane. We don’t know whether he played a role in convincing Gibson Dunn partner Randy Mastro to provide ample legal resources at no cost for the lawsuit backed by his wife and daughter. We don’t know what the senator said about the bike lane to City Council members or to Mayor Bloomberg. There is solid evidence, however, that Chuck Schumer, like the rest of his family, opposed the Prospect Park West bike lane, and that his political stature was vital to the fight against it.

  • Anonymous

    This wonderful multi-part analysis of The NBBL files used to be something written in places like the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and the Voice.  Shows that real journalism, as opposed to reprinting press releases from flacks, is withering.  And since Streetsblog does not have the current readership of those outlets, the general public may never know the truth.

  • The big story here is that despite opposition from such powerful figures, the PPW bike lane survives! Kudos to the mayor and the DOT for standing up for the community.

  • Friend of the Berms

    I don’t care how much he enjoys riding his bike, it will not surprise me if Chuck Schumer joins Senate Republicans in eliminating all federal funding for urban bicycle infrastructure because of this Streetsblog investigation.

    It’s like Streetsblog is standing under the biggest, meanest bee hive in Brooklyn and calmly, methodically whacking it with a stick.

  • MSM

    Add New York Magazine to your list of mainstream media that have missed or muffed the story of the attack the PPW lane.

  • Anonymous

    From the Brooklyn Spokes comment page, just what I was thinking:paul PERMALINKOctober 3, 2011 4:35 pmmaybe he wasn’t biking in the bike lane, but he was availing himself of that pedestrian refuge island!

  • As a commenter pointed out to me, Chuck Schumer may not like the bike lane, but he sure is availing himself of the shorter crossing distance and better visibility that new pedestrian island offers! 

  • Brooklyn College Grad

    Louise’s January 24 email to former Brooklyn College president Christoph Kimmich is pretty informative. A few nuggets:

    “Iris had been working behind the scenes until the election but with Chuck now making good progress in the Senate battles, she’s apparently decided to throw caution to the wind and come out from behind the scenes.”

    “Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes and is the chairperson of the City Council Transportation Committee.”

    “Norman Steisel is like no one I’ve ever met, but clearly very experienced politically. I’m the data geek and technology guru in measuring the bike lane usage and I write a lot of the early drafts of things that then are critiqued and polished. I also organize meetings, mailings, etc, which I didn’t really know that others can’t do that well sometimes.”

    And finally, this gem:

    “Given the terrible circumstances on the streets here, you’re better off in NJ. The Mayor has really outdone himself in hubris.”

    I’m guessing there’s a whole bunch of CUNY employees deleting their inboxes this week.

  • Brooklyn College Grad

    The delusional paranoia exhibited in this email exchange between Louise Hainline and Jessica Schumer is truly something to behold.

    You almost have to remind yourself: It’s all over a bike lane. Just a bike lane.

  • Brooklyn College Grad

    Jesus, I need to stop reading these NBBL emails and go live my life. But this shit is riveting.

    I like how in the July 21 email exchange between Louise and Lisa (AdviceFromMediaPersonRedacted.pdf), they are totally incapable of acknowledging the  giant elephant standing there in NBBL headquarters taking a dump on the expensive Persian carpet — support for their cause is rapidly vanishing as their neighbors grow comfortable with the redesign of the street.

    In attempting to explain why NBBL’s volunteer petitioning seems to have failed and a volunteer named James has disappeared, Louise writes:

    “I have received no petitions back, I don’t know… if the petitioning process is also falling off. Clearly, some people are less upset than they were originally.”

    Lisa replies:

    “Haven’t heard from James either – hmmmm – sure he is on vacation. Someone keeps ripping down my flyer I put in the window of my building… I had a lot of request for petitions but haven’t gotten any back.”

    Louise:

    “Flyer rippers too! What jerks.”

  • Andrew

    “Will put that on the list, but have to do a bit of college work first.”  Poor Hainline – your boss expects you to do your job every now and again!

  • Andrew

    “Will put that on the list, but have to do a bit of college work first.”  Poor Hainline – your boss expects you to do your job every now and again!

  • Sigmund

    Politics sure makes strange bedfellows and Iris Weinshall probably now regrets the day she ever got in bed with Louise Hainline.  All she has to show for their collaboration is a damaged reputation, the public exposure of her emails, and some embarrassment for her husband.  Plus there’s still a highly popular bike lane that will remain on the street outside her apartment as a reminder of it all.

  • Anonymous

    @9f5377a83fec2c41721f78189d209cab:disqus great point, if the original intent was to protect Iris Weinshall’s legacy they’ve achieved the opposite.  If not with the Tabloid reading public, with people who actually follow transportation.

    While DSK is leading the way with large projects originally designed by the guiulliani admin no one would have thought of Iris Weinshall as particularly backwards or foolish until she stuck her neck out to double down on a losing position.

  • somebody’s watching
  • Mark Elliot

    Yeah, well Streetsblog may not have the readership of the Times, but it has the reach: we’re watching this saga continue to unfold here in Los Angeles. We’re having our own tussles with opponents, but nothing like this – and nothing with the whiff of Watergate.

    These NIMBYs won’t give it up to the utility and safety of this lane until they can duck in and try to take credit. Hence the ‘NBBL’ moniker. Shameless, really. These dinosaurs belong in old-NY type historical dioramas, like in the Museum of History.I’ve long wondered why the NYT was gunning for the lane, though. Recently their bike coverage turned more neutral and generic, as in ‘great bike getaways!’ which seemed like a curious pivot. I guess that the NYT loves bikes as long as it’s not in Park Slope. Or maybe they see the writing on the wall too.

  • krstrois

    Incredible that they did so much plotting and calculating and in the end they were so ineffectual. The lumbering ox walks slowly off a cliff . . . this time.

  • So when can we primary this bastard, Wall St.’s own personal Senator? He’s not a Senator for the rest of us.

  • That’s a good question, Billy. We barely had a primary challenge for our *appointed* junior senator. I voted for Gail Goode in it even though I had no particular complaint with Gillibrand, because I just can’t accept that we don’t get to elect senators in New York. That because of some random Clintonian shenanigans our once-in-a-generation opportunity to democratically elect a senator was taken away. That’s effed up.Schumer will be even harder to dethrone, but on the bright side it is not such a great time to the unabashed senator from Wall Street. If you want to help make him nervous, I suggest joining one of the regular marches now taking place on this topic. Whatever anyone thinks the top marginal tax rate should be (as a conservative I have to go with 90%, as it was in the good old 1950s) it’s thrilling and inspiring to walk with a crowd chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”

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  • Kateannsawyer

    Ok – I’m obviously late to this – but after using the bike lane consistently about three times a day and loving every minute of it, I finally decided to look into this story to try to find out what the hell schumer could have had against this???? Obviously I’m not so stupid to buy their argument that they are concerned about public safety, so why do they hate it??? Is it something so crass as that it just looks bad from their apartment??? ( but frankly, I don’t even see that)

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